Europe's Unwelcome Guests
by Maria Margoronis
The Nation magazine, May 27, 2002
Yonas is worried about his cell phone. He keeps punching in
numbers from a crumpled bit of paper, but none of them is the
PIN he needs. His eyes are filling up with tears. "Please,"
he says, smiling desperately. "I throw it. If it not work,
I throw it."
Yonas is 14 and comes from Eritrea. Both his parents were
killed in the war with Ethiopia; he left home by swimming out
at night to where the cargo ships lie anchored off Massawa City.
His only plan was to get to Europe, study hard and make money.
He climbed up the anchor chain of a Greek ship, pried open the
hatch and lay for three days under a lifeboat, coming out into
the light as the ship was passing through the Suez Canal. The
captain hid Yonas from the Egyptian authorities and, when they
got to Pireaus, turned his back to let him sprint ashore. After
four days Yonas met some fellow Eritreans, who brought him to
the Nafsika hostel for asylum seekers.
The workers here have done their best for Yonas, but tomorrow
he has to leave: Every few days a new ship pulls into one of Greece's
island ports packed with exhausted Afghans, Kurds, Iraqis and
Iranians. Without the phone the prospect of the provincial children's
home where he is going becomes impossibly frightening. When a
motherly volunteer reaches into her purse and hands a wad of cash
to a colleague to buy him a new one, the relief on his face is
Yonas is one of the lucky ones. He has survived his journey;
he has met people who care for him; and, as long as he stays in
the children's home, he will probably not be deported. Migrants
in Greece are prey to prejudiced officials and ruthless employers;
most of those who land here hope to move up the underground railroad
to Northern Europe. And yet Greece has its advantages. The pervasive
administrative chaos and flourishing black economy provide chinks
in which to build a (provisional) life. Xenophobia coexists with
the habit of bending rules. Like most things, "Fortress Europe"
is underdeveloped here.
Two thousand miles to the north, a young West African sits
in the visiting room of the Yarl's Wood Immigration Detention
Centre near Bedford. If it weren't for the extreme cleanliness,
the reinforced doors and the guards with jangling keys, this could
be a college common room. The carpet and chairs are a soothing
blue; little shrubs have been planted by the towering wall outside
the picture windows. Yarl's Wood is brand-new, a flagship for
the British government's policy of locking up rejected asylum
seekers-and many whose claims are still undetermined-before deporting
them. Britain detains more asylum seekers, and for longer, than
any other European country.
Very quietly, Michael Lawal tells me that he was brought to
Britain from Sierra Leone by a step-uncle six years ago, when
he was 16. He had just escaped from rebels who massacred his family
in front of him. The uncle abused him; eventually he ran away.
Last spring he was picked up by the police and has been in a series
of jails and detention centers ever since. He has terrible nightmares
and has tried to kill himself more than once. His application
for asylum has been rejected. But right now he has more pressing
problems. In mid-February, half of Yarl's Wood burned to the ground
in a fire apparently started by rioting detainees; some may have
died in the blaze. Michael says the violence began when inmates
saw guards mistreating a sick and agitated African woman. Soon
after I saw him he and about seventy others from Yarl's Wood were
moved to ordinary prisons, where they are being held without charge
in violation of UN rules. The government has admitted that Yarl's
Wood was built without sprinklers, and firefighters have complained
that they were kept from the burning building while guards tried
to round up their charges. But asylum seekers have been so demonized
in Britain that all blame has gravitated to the detainees, who
have been lumped together as ungrateful arsonists.
Michael and his fellow asylum seekers are in detention so
that they can be seen to be there-by the voters, the tabloids
and the army of the poor. In Britain, as in the rest of Europe,
immigration is now political dynamite. Jean-Marie Le Pen's success
in France is the latest in a series of right-wing victories, from
Portugal to Norway; anti-immigrant sentiment has played a part
in all of them. After decades of failure to foster integration,
the rush to ride a wave of xenophobia is bringing social democratic
parties ever closer to their right-wing competitors. September
11 has made matters worse, giving anti-Islamic prejudice a new
respectability and adding an edge of fear to social anxieties.
No mainstream party has stood up against this trend: Tolerance
and compassion are difficult to sell. As the numbers of would-be
immigrants increase, refugees are tarred with the same brush as
illegal economic migrants. Since there's no way to claim asylum
from outside a country, they are forced to use the same clandestine
routes, allowing demagogues to elide the difference in the phrase
"bogus asylum seekers."
In the tolerant Netherlands, the anti-Muslim Pim Fortuyn Party
was poised to win 20 percent of the seats in May's national elections
before the assassination of its flamboyant leader convulsed Dutch
politics. In multi-ethnic Denmark the far-right Danish People's
Party won 12 percent of the vote last November and is now pushing
for asylum laws so tough that the UN has complained. Austria's
Jorg Haider and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi are becoming the grand
old men of a new despotic tendency: As another rusty cargo ship
full of Iraqi Kurds pulled into Sicily in March, Berlusconi decreed
that his government would henceforth destroy vessels used for
such transports. German refugee groups are concerned that September's
elections will bring a new surge of racism to the European country
with the most asylum seekers, the greatest reliance on foreign
workers and the most restrictive citizenship laws.
But across Europe, the demographics argue a different case.
EU consultation papers are peppered with references to Europe's
need for foreign workers. The population is aging and the birthrate
is falling; in Italy, it is now down to 1.2 births per woman.
Even as Berlusconi rants about the foreign tide, the labor-starved
factories of the north fill their assembly lines with Africans
and Asians legalized by government amnesties. The UN has calculated
that to keep the proportion of working to nonworking people at
1995 levels, the EU must take in 1.4 million migrants a year-more
than the number who now enter legally and illegally combined.
The social democratic governments of Britain and Germany are
trying to finesse the issue by opening the door to a few skilled
workers while cracking down on refugees and other illegal entrants.
In late March, a bill allowing limited skilled immigration squeaked
through the Bundestag on a technicality; the conservative opposition
threatened to take the government to court, even though the bill
will also tighten Germany's already tough asylum laws. New Labour's
proposed immigration bill makes a similar calculation, offering
"managed opportunities" for some highly skilled and
seasonal workers while proposing stricter border controls and
a faster, more "streamlined" asylum process. Hence Yarl's
Wood and its sister centers, built to deter the hopeful and speed
the removal of unwanted guests.
As most of the world sinks deeper into poverty and wars flare
up where cold war Band-Aids have been torn away, more and more
people are driven to uproot themselves. Ten years ago, about 80
million lived outside the country of their birth; now, it's more
than 150 million. Nearly 22 million are "of concern"
to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, almost half of them
children. Though Europeans complain of being "swamped,"
three-quarters of all refugees remain in their own regions. For
the great majority there is no legal avenue to safety.
Like the anxious rich the world over, Europe is bent on protecting
its assets while keeping a back gate open for the maid, the nanny
and the chauffeur. Without new immigrants-many working illegally
or semi-legally for subminimum wages-the continent's economy would
grind to a halt. If social democratic governments have trouble
arguing for skilled immigration, the political costs of opening
the front door to unskilled workers are even greater; besides,
there are unspoken advantages in maintaining a reservoir of flexible
illegal labor. As a result, the asylum system is under tremendous
strain, not only from the growing numbers facing political violence
but from those for whom it represents the only chance to escape
poverty and social deprivation.
The International Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees
celebrated its fiftieth birthday last year; it remains the most
important protection for people fleeing persecution, despite claims
by European governments (Tony Blair's at the forefront) that it
has outlived its usefulness. But the world has changed since 1951,
and the flexibility that has insured the convention's longevity
has also allowed governments to narrow its force. After World
War II, there were fewer than 1 million refugees in Europe, most
of them white. In the years that followed, those who applied for
refugee status were generally fleeing the Soviet bloc, bringing
considerable political capital with them. But in the l990s, more
than 4 million asked for asylum in Europe, most of them from Asia,
the Middle East and the Balkans-an increase of two and a half
million over the previous decade. Meanwhile, the 1 970s recession
and unmanaged racial tensions had led most European countries
to adopt an official policy of zero immigration.
The "solution" adopted by European governments has
been to chip away at the convention's edges while continuing to
pay lip service to its principles. The convention accords protection
to anyone who has "a well-founded fear of persecution";
it does not specify by whom. France, Italy and, until recently,
Germany have therefore limited its application to persecution
by the state, excluding victims of civil wars and sectarian violence.
The convention's signatories are only obliged to shelter refugees
who have already entered their territory. Germany does not process
asylum applications from refugees who arrive by land, as they
have by definition passed through a safe third country to do so,
while Britain and Italy take drastic measures to keep potential
refugees from reaching their shores.
The legal hurdles asylum seekers must clear to win recognition
have also been pushed upward. In 1987 Britain allowed 80 percent
of asylum applicants to remain; by 1996, the figure was down to
20 percent. Increasing numbers are refused on grounds of "noncompliance"-that
is, for errors in filling out the long form that must be completed
in English within ten working days of application, or failure
to attend an interview many miles away. Since immigration officers
are under pressure to reject as many applicants as possible, interviews
become a cat-and-mouse game in which the officer tries to catch
the petitioner in a lie while she streamlines her story to fit
the requirements. The requirements themselves are difficult to
fathom. "With regard to your final arrest," reads a
letter of refusal sent recently to a Sudanese woman, "the
secretary of state would point out that he does not condone such
actions. However, he notes that your public flogging has occurred
on only one occasion, and therefore he does not accept that this
in itself would constitute persecution." "If Jesus Christ
came to Britain," one immigration lawyer told me, "he
would not be given asylum."
As there is no Europe-wide policy on asylum, there is also
competition among European countries to be the least attractive
destination for refugees, though few of them have the luxury of
researching reception conditions before they set out. As any British
tabloid reader knows, the Red Cross center at Sangatte on the
north coast of France is a base for migrants who nightly try to
penetrate the Channel Tunnel, rushing the high wire fences of
the yards so they can cling to the sides of freight trains on
their twenty-minute journey through the dark. At times, efforts
to stop them have completely stalled goods traffic, costing the
freight companies and the tunnel operators millions of pounds.
The British have repeatedly demanded Sangatte's closure; the French
reply (somewhat disingenuously) that it is there because it fills
a need. In fact, each country is desperate to off load its asylum
seekers onto its neighbors. When Le Pen disses Blair by threatening
to put Sangatte's residents on a special train to London, he is
voicing the unspoken wishes of many more temperate leaders.
In 1999 the EU resolved to legislate on immigration matters
and affirmed, at least in theory, its commitment to the 1951 convention.
So far, though, attempts to "harmonize" asylum practice
have mainly produced new measures for policing the borders- a
Europe-wide fingerprint base called Eurodac, fines for truck drivers
who unwittingly bring in stowaways, penalties for facilitating
illegal entry. Since September 11 anti-terrorist legislation has
further restricted asylum seekers' rights as security takes precedence
over refugee protection. None of this stops the migrants from
hurling themselves at the gates. Their journeys are not undertaken
lightly. Hundreds have died on their way to the West, suffocated
in sealed containers or drowned in the Mediterranean. The pinched
faces of Afghans reaching for food as their ship lists in a Greek
harbor; the panic in Michael Lawal's voice calling from prison,
where white inmates have attacked him with boiling water; the
grief of a woman from Sierra Leone whose children are growing
up without her while British officials delay applications for
family reunion; the despair of a Somali man who has won refugee
status to learn that his wife has given up waiting-all these represent
an infinitesimal fraction of the misery involved in "irregular"
The smugglers who both help and prey on migrants come in many
forms. Gazmend Kapllani, an Albanian journalist in Athens, sketched
out for me the hierarchy of local entrepreneurs who help his compatriots
over the border, from the embassy official who will sell you a
visa for 400,000 drachmas (about $1,100), to the "taxi driver"
who has an understanding with a border official, to the humble
guide who claims to know the mountain paths. For long-distance
travel, the fees are much higher: perhaps $16,000 from Peshawar
to London by air, $10,000 by land, including fake documents, nights
on cold mountains and some months in an Istanbul sweatshop. In
many areas, smuggling is run by organized criminal networks that
have "diversified" from drugs to people. Tens of thousands
of women (children, too) are smuggled and trapped into prostitution
in Western Europe every year, mainly from the former Soviet Union.
The International Organization for Migration reckons that 500,000
to a million people are trafficked in Europe annually. While Western
governments rail against the smugglers' abuses, it is obvious
that the aggressive tightening of immigration controls only expands
the market for their services.
It is not always easy to untangle the reasons why people take
such risks with their lives. The 1951 convention and other legal
instruments rightly distinguish between those fleeing persecution
and those migrating for economic reasons; without that bottom
line, no protection for refugees would be possible. In practice,
though, the line can be difficult to draw. An Afghan reduced to
starvation by war, drought and economic collapse or a Somali fleeing
banditry and famine after the civil war blur the boundaries and
raise hard questions about the limits of the West's responsibility.
Yonas and Michael may not be fleeing present persecution in the
strictest sense, but their lives at home are ravaged beyond repair.
In Afghanistan, people will sell all they have to send one son
to the West, knowing that if he makes it, his remittances will
change their future. According to the International Labor Organization,
$73 billion is sent home each year by foreign workers worldwide,
significantly more than the sum of aid from rich to poor countries.
The rich world is the end point of journeys that can take many
years and pass through several countries; often, a person's circumstances
will have changed radically by the time he arrives. The decision
about whether to seek asylum may also be circumstantial. For every
"bogus" Albanian who has used false documents to gain
admission as a Kosovar, there is a genuine refugee who has decided
to take her chances as an undocumented worker rather than enter
the asylum lottery.
All over Europe, migrant workers are filling jobs the "natives"
no longer wish to do for the wages on offer. Nele Verbruggen of
Picum, a Brussels information and organizing center for Europe's
sans papiers, reckons that the Continent hosts well over 5 million
undocumented workers. In Greece, Albanians and Bulgarians keep
agriculture going and bathe the aged parents of middle-class Athenians.
In Britain, nurses from Africa and the Philippines sustain the
National Health Service. At El Ejido in southern Spain, 30,000
hectares of tomatoes and peppers are harvested by as many Moroccans,
three-quarters of them illegal, who live in cardboard boxes and
lean-tos made of garbage bags and corrugated tin. When the Moroccans
began to organize after a Spanish pogrom against them two years
ago, the farmers began to bring in Ecuadoreans, Lithuanians and
Ukrainians to replace them. The nineteenth-century "California
model" also has adherents in Switzerland, the Netherlands,
Britain and the south of France.
Nick Clark, a policy officer at Britain's Trades Union Congress,
argues that despite official noises about curbing illegal working,
the British government turns a blind eye to loopholes allowing
bosses to hire foreign labor on the cheap. Hotels in Central London
import cleaners from the Baltic states to work for three-month
periods on Baltic wages; because they are brought in by foreign
agencies subcontracted to British companies, they are technically
legal but unprotected by minimum-wage laws. Ukrainian workers
are bused to Swindon outside London to work in abattoirs; Poles
head for East Anglia to pick vegetables. Clark says the National
Farmers Union would have a fit if employment laws were enforced:
"The fruit would rot on the trees." These workers effectively
have no rights; their exploitation also undermines legal workers,
keeping wages down and making it difficult to unionize. The International
Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers,
adopted by the UN in 1990, remains unratified by even one wealthy
country, though its provisions are minimal.
Europe's resistance to immigration differs in its history
and culture from America's. As the writer Jeremy Harding explains
in his book The Uninvited: Refugees at the Rich Man s Gate, even
liberal Europeans are ambivalent about America's brand of multiculturalism,
seeing it as the partner of unbridled capitalism: "Everyone
pays grudging homage to the American model of cultural diversity,
but European governments of all persuasions are dour about its
advantages and alert to its dangers: cities eroded by poverty
and profit; the cantonisation of neighbourhoods; urban and rural
societies doubly fractured by ethnicity and class." In the
last century immigrants came largely from Europe's colonies; attitudes
toward them were inseparable from racism and resentment at the
waning of empire. Now, there is plenty of change in the air to
amplify old insecurities: European unification, the erosion of
local communities by global markets, rising crime, fears of impending
The far right feeds on such uncertainties. But as the British
historian Tony Kushner points out, immigration does not have to
bring racial tensions: "The assumption that racism is a problem
Maria Margaronis writes from The Nation s London bureau.